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August 27, 2008 > Life After Stroke: Is This 'As Good as It Gets'?

Life After Stroke: Is This 'As Good as It Gets'?

Stroke Center Coordinator Talks About Ways to Regain Independence

When talking about life after stroke, Doug Van Houten, R.N., coordinator of Washington Hospital's Stroke Program invokes the titular line from 1997's As Good as It Gets when Jack Nicholson's character asks "What if this is as good as it gets?"

"My answer is no. After a stroke, you can't just go home and give up," Van Houten says. "You can get better and so much of it is up to you."

Next Tuesday, September 2, Van Houten will present an evening lecture focusing on ways to improve life after a stroke as part of Washington Hospital's Stroke Education Series.

While he is the first to admit how frightening and devastating stroke is, Van Houten remains relentlessly positive about patients' ability to improve their lives after a stroke. During his presentation, Van Houten will explore new ways for stroke survivors to continue improving their situation.

"The really great thing about stroke that I have found is that most strokes get better," he says. "There are a lot of variables at play, including what part of the brain is affected by stroke, how much of the brain is injured and how old the person is - but it also has to do with how much of a fighter and innovator you are, how creative you can be and how goal-oriented you are to get back on your feet. These are variables that will have a big effect on how much a patient can improve.

"The worst thing you can do is say 'I'm going to go sit on the couch and watch TV the rest of my life.' I'm not saying this is easy at all. Sometimes stroke turns your whole world upside down. Bad things happen to good people, but people who are really courageous find ways to overcome."

Because stroke essentially translates to a "brain attack," the effects can be devastating, both physically and cognitively. Even a mild or moderate stroke can affect an individual's ability to communicate, walk independently, drive a motor vehicle and even concentrate on daily tasks such as handling personal finances, according to Van Houten.

"I think a lot of times after a stroke - after the process of being treated in the ER, then spending time in ICU, followed by treatment on the stroke floor, and acute rehab - they finally go home and realize 'I have to make it on my own,'" Van Houten says. "The Stroke Program tries to support and encourage people to take responsibility for getting better after they leave the hospital. Improving independence is just one more learning process."

A significant motivator to improving after a stroke, he says, is seeing other people that have adapted successfully to life after stroke. This is where the Stroke Program's Stroke Support Group provides enormous benefit.

Held from 1 to 2:30 p.m. the fourth Tuesday of each month, the support group provides vital social and emotional support to stroke survivors and their caregivers, as well as expert presentations on practical topics and information about stroke resources. (For details, see Washington Hospital's Health & Wellness Catalog or visit

"The Stroke Support Group is maturing," Van Houten says. "It's a bigger group, between 15 and 16, which is good. We've changed some things. Now we have a speaker every time. It's not formal, just someone who's an expert in their field providing information. The really great thing about stroke support groups is the group itself. We have so many people talking about solutions. It's really good for some of the people who have recently had a stroke to hear from people who had a stroke years ago."

One of the biggest hurdles many stroke survivors face is some degree of aphasia, a loss of ability to produce or understand language, which can be frustrating for both them and caregivers, Van Houten points out. That's why the Life After Stroke seminar and the Stroke Support Group both focus a great deal on improving communication through creative means.

Van Houten freely admits that the obstacles facing stroke survivors can be frustrating, but the alternative is much worse, he says.

"There's a reason I always call people stroke survivors, not stroke victims," he says. "Close to 25 percent of those who have a stroke are dead within the first year. Those that stay alive are the survivors. My message is: 'Keep fighting to get ahead. Keep going.'"

Van Houten encourages stroke survivors and their caregivers - a majority of whom are spouses - to seek out resources that are available to them.

To hear more about making improvements after a stroke, join Doug Van Houten, R.N. for "Life After Stroke/Future in Diagnosis and Management" from 6 to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 2, at the Conrad E. Anderson, M.D. Auditorium, located at 2500 Mowry Avenue in Fremont.

For more information or to register, call Washington Hospital's Health Connection line at (800) 963-7070.

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